No Pain, No Gain: Unsolicited calls are part of a shareholder's life

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The Independent Online

Unsolicited telephone calls are an intolerable nuisance that private shareholders are powerless to prevent. It is possible to block most from the likes of TalkTalk and British Gas but difficult to stop those from some City stockbrokers, unregulated overseas "boiler rooms" and others seeking to come between shareholders and their cash.

A company's shareholders' register is available to all and sundry. So any miscreant has access to the names and addresses of those interested in money-making activities. Putting telephone numbers to the names is time-consuming, but no great hardship.

As a private investor I am plagued by unwanted calls. Within a few seconds I usually break the connection. Recently a caller asked if I was a shareholder in Printing.com; the phone was quickly replaced. The company is a constituent of the No Pain, No Gain portfolio but I was called because I am a Printing.com shareholder. Indeed, I have modest shareholdings in all but one of the 15 portfolio members. My view is that when recommending shares the least I can do is put my money where my mouth is. Another factor is that very often more information can be gleaned from annual reports and other company communications than from Stock Exchange announcements.

I am not surprised to discover that I was not the only Printing.com shareholder approached. The calls have so worried Alan Roberts, the company's finance director, that he has written to shareholders warning them about the intrusion.

Apparently, some held on long enough to hear such titbits as a view on the shares and the possibility of corporate news. Not surprisingly there was talk of selling the shares and an offer of unspecified services.

Roberts writes: "We do not know the purpose of the caller, however we would agree with the sentiment of the shareholders who received such calls that the incident was suspicious."

I now wish I had listened to the spiel. At least I would have obtained the name of the calling organisation, which would have allowed me to name and shame. The trouble is these calls are part of a shareholder's life. They are so annoying that a quick escape seems the obvious reaction. But the tragedy is too many of us are taken in by the gentle flow of rhetoric offering investments that are quite clearly too good to be true.

Many originate from "boiler rooms" - so called because of their red-hot atmosphere. Often obscure US shares are offered. Unfortunately, their foreign base means the share pushers escape this country's regulators. But it is not unusual to receive calls from London stockbrokers. I did, briefly, engage in a relationship with one, getting a few analyst reports and offers to get involved in new issues and special situations. One of the so-called bargains was presented as taking part in a flotation. I soon discovered I was not going to get shares at the issue price; my role would be to help the after market. The shares were floated at 3p and my special offer on the first day of dealings was 4.5p; the price is now 4p.

I believe I am still on the books. I have never dealt through the broker and do not intend to do so. Thankfully, contact has ceased.

It is not only via the telephone that investors are harassed. Junk mail is an irritant. And almost daily, along with such taunts as e-mail offers to improve my sex life, I get internet messages urging me to rush into US shares. I've not heard of any of the recommended candidates and sometimes wonder whether the barrage is someone's idea of a joke. I have also encountered frequent online attempts to obtain my banking details from an array of tricksters masquerading as the Halifax (of which I am a customer) and other banks where I have no relationship.

The internet is a villains' delight. It has opened a whole new world for them. That is why I am so reluctant to deal in shares online or surrender the faithful share certificate in exchange for some form of electronic statement. In my view the extra cost of certification, although unjustified, is worth tolerating.

The Printing.com affair comes at a difficult time for the company, with the shares depressed following a surprise profit warning. Expectations have been reduced. Still, two directors have offered tangible support by buying shares since the alert, which lowered the price some 20p to around 45p.

cash@independent.co.uk

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